Video Games and Historical Thinking

Before delving into the readings for our class on Digital History Games, I assumed the discussion would center on the question of “historical authenticity.” Indeed, most debates I have seen on the internet focus heavily on whether a game set in the past is historically accurate, with people from across the globe chiming in their opinion. Although the question of authenticity was undoubtedly a factor in the readings, with Jerome de Groot and Niall Ferguson critiquing many of the issues present in the first-person shooter genre, the majority of the articles (and our subsequent class discussion) seemed to focus instead on the question of whether games can make the public think historically.[1] For example, Tim Compeau and Robert MacDougall discuss running an ARG that made players think about how history is written and remembered by focusing on the legacy of Tecumseh and the War of 1812.[2] Additionally, Shawn Graham talks about his many issues creating a Year of the Four Emperors mod for Civilization IV that demonstrated history is not inventible but contingent.[3] With these articles in mind, this blog post discusses whether video games can get the public to think historically about the past.

Although I can name many video games that are described as historically “authentic,” it is hard to name a one that challenges a user to think historically. As we noted in our class discussion, “historic games” are often pre-existing mechanics (first- or third-person shooters, real-time strategy, etc.) applied to a historical setting. For instance,  while the games in EA’s Battlefield series (a first-person shooter) have been set in a multitude of historical and contemporary settings, the mechanics have rarely changed, leaving each new installment to feel like the same game with new a paint job.

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In-Game Screenshot of Battlefield One (2016) Source: Destructoid

Despite the similarity in gameplay, EA has begun introducing historical thinking concepts in the Battlefield series that is similar to the Civilization IV modding experiment run by Graham. In Battlefield One (set in World War One), there is a multiplayer mode titled Operations where players fight against each other in many of the significant campaigns of the war. Unlike most other multiplayer first-person shooters that have the players fight as soon as they join the game, there is a narrator for each team that describes the historical context of the battle at the beginning and end of the match. However, the narrator’s ending dialogue changes depending on which team wins the battle, either explaining the real-life outcome of the engagement or speculating on what could have happened if the other side won. For instance, in the Operation campaign Kaiserschlacht, which follows the German 1918 Spring Offensive, the ending narration changes significantly depending on if the British or German forces win. If the match ends historically with the British successfully defending Amiens, the narrator largely follows the historical script by explaining that the German Empire suffered heavy casualties, failed to secure a decisive victory and opened themselves up to a counterattack with the arrival of American troops. But, if Germany manages to take Amiens and win the campaign, the narrator explains that since the city was an important railroad hub, its loss would have severely impacted the Allies’ ability to supply their troops in the Western Front. Speculating, the narrator states that if momentum continued and Germany captured Paris, France would likely surrender, and the British would seek a truce “while they planned their new strategy.”

 

Even though the narration is purely hypothetical and there is no way of truly knowing whether a German victory at Amiens would occur as they describe, its inclusion helps demonstrate to players that historical outcomes are not inventible but contingent. In Video Games Can Help Us Un­der­stand Historical Change, Ylva Grufstedt discusses the value of allowing the public to pursue alternative history scenarios in video games: “When we play, we learn the rules of the game. Understanding the framework and figuring out which elements are crucial, or otherwise important, for manipulating the scenario at hand, bears semblances to thinking with the past, rather than about the past.”[4] Despite the fact that we need to acknowledge that we are interacting in a world built by designers, “Games…provide the ability to abstract, generalize, identify and contextualize important historical events, people or periods interactively. Proficient players are able to historicize factors of change and apply their knowledge of historiography within the game, in order to manufacture counterfactual scenarios of their own creativity.”[5]

While Battlefield One’s narration may not as strong of an example of showing historical contingency compared to a strategy game like Europa Universalis IV because the core of the experience retains all the issues associated with historical FPS genre, there is clearly an attempt within the game at getting the public to think about the past. As one of my favourite aspects of the game, it is a shame that they removed it in Battlefield V (2018). Despite being a minor inclusion, I felt it did an excellent job at immersing users and illustrating that any historical outcome could have turned out differently.  Without its inclusion, the experience resembles many of the FPS titles critiqued by de Groot in that while the authenticity of the experience is stressed, there is little information to be gained outside weapons, uniforms and vehicles utilized in the war.

 

 

[1] For examples of the problems in historic FPS games, see: Jerome de Groot, Consuming History Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), ch.9.  Niall Ferguson, “How To Win a War,” New York Magazine, October 12, 2006, http://nymag.com/news/features/22787/.

[2] Tim Compeau and Robert MacDougall, “Tecumseh Returns: A History Game in Alternate Reality, Augmented Reality, and Reality,” in Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, ed. Kevin Kee and Tim Compeau (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019), 176-206.

[3] Shawn Graham, “Rolling Your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals,” in Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology, ed. Kevin Kee (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2014), 214-227.

[4] Ylva Grufstedt, Video Games Can Help Us Understand Historical Change,” University of Helsinki, November 11, 2016, https://www.helsinki.fi/en/news/language-culture/video-games-can-help-us-understand-historical-change.

[5] ibid.

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